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A Near-Perfect Launch : Missiles of October take exuberant flight with 'Tropic of Soulfolk,' a masterful debut CD full of spark, humor and fire-in-the-belly anger.

May 06, 1997|MIKE BOEHM



"Tropic of Soulfolk"

Take a special combination of talents, give them time to blend and you can get something that approaches perfection.

Not that the four members of Missiles of October, who have been playing together as a unit for 5 1/2 years and scratching away at musical careers in Orange County for 20 years or more, chose to wait this long.

But to have made a debut album this good is to redeem all the toil, disappointment and stuck-in-the-bars frustration that preceded it. With any justice, "Tropic of Soulfolk," a title that aptly points to the band's dual mastery of the traditions of sweaty blues and R&B and heady, passionate singer-songwriter lyricism, will turn the Missiles into adult-rock heroes whose songs can stand assuredly alongside the likes of Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart and John Hiatt.

It's not inflammatory to say that the Missiles--Poul Finn Pedersen, the singer and main songwriter; guitarist Bob Hawkins; and the sterling drums and bass team of Frank Cotinola and Jimmy Perez--are serious victims of ageism. It's simply obvious. If they were under 30, this record would be coming out with a big-label push, following hard upon a bidding war for the band's signature on a contract.

But with all four members in their 40s, what we have is a band of do-it-yourselfers who managed to outfit their album with big-league sound quality (with help from producers they met at A&M Records, which gave the Missiles a close look two years ago) and a well-done CD package whose "Dr. Strangelove"-inspired cover art puns on the Cold War associations in the band's name. With a major-label-quality product in hand, the Missiles now have to hope for some major strokes of luck.

The band, whose splendor is well known to the fans who keep coming back to hear it hold forth every Thursday night and Sunday afternoon at its home club, the Marine Room Tavern in Laguna Beach, have some prospects in England, where friends and supporters in the concert promotion business have booked a Missiles tour starting Monday. In the United States, the Missiles measure their current promotional throw-weight in ounces, not megatons.

That could change rapidly. There is no mistaking the ready appeal of an album's worth of melodies this memorable, instrumental performances this full of spark and cohesiveness, and singing as full of the honed nuance, flinty humor, aching depth of feeling and fire-in-the-belly anger and zeal that the amazing Pedersen brings to bear.

He openly stakes his claim to a place in the tradition of great soul singers by quoting some easily recognized signature riffs. Pedersen is a master of the James Brown, dog-whistle-range scream but is smart enough to use it judiciously for maximum excitement and emotional impact.

One tremendous song, "Back to the Basics," holds distinct echoes both of Van Morrison and of Rod Stewart paying homage to Sam Cooke. But except for "Come Straight Back Home," a good song in which the John Prine influence is too overt, Pedersen sounds like his own man.

When the Missiles play live, guitarist Hawkins works magic by being as effusive as he is tasteful and disciplined. On record, he doesn't have room to stretch out as much. (He lays back on some songs to let a couple of Laguna buddies, David Witham and Bobby Wright, step forward with delicious Hammond organ playing.)

But there is no mistaking the vibrant energy and masterly control that go into everything Hawkins plays, from the brawny slide guitar commentary of "Look at Daddy Run" to the elegiac loveliness of his solo on the ballad "Waiting to Go Back Home." Cotinola and Perez don't just build a rhythmic foundation, but are inventive artisans whose rich, always-up-to-something musicality rewards close listening.

What lifts the Missiles above many a talented band of players' players is songwriting that eschews formula and rassles vividly with rough experience. Many of the tracks delve into the difficulties of sustaining emotional attachments, and the wounds that linger when somebody you need--especially an absentee father--bails out on you.

High-stakes emotional currents run through just about every song--except for the dessert track, a funky gospel-tinged novelty romp through Bob Dylan's "All I Really Want to Do," which the Missiles have somewhat misleadingly dubbed "Hip Hop Bob."

The achingly gorgeous "Lonnie," written by Richard Stekol, one of Orange County's best but, alas, least-spotlighted songwriters, shows how the need for attachment can latch onto memory alone when life has grown so bare that there is nothing else to cling to.

"Look at Daddy Run" is a gem of musical brightness and vitality coexisting with acute bitterness. "Back to the Basics" celebrates great, fundamental roots music ("Give me B.B. King! Fats Domino! Muddy Waters! Little Walter! Joe Tex and all those guys," crows an ardent Pedersen), while hopefully supposing that living in its heartening presence can heal and strengthen a relationship.


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